Nathan Mollat/Daily Journal
Notre Dame-Belmont’s Stephanie Kolnes, right, blocks a Castilleja attack during the Tigers’ three-game sweep.
Just think of this season as a foundation-building year for the Notre Dame-Belmont volleyball team because the best is yet to come in the next few years.
The Tigers may be young — three freshmen and three sophomores on a roster of 14 — but they are oozing with talent as their now 10-3 non-league record attests following a three-game sweep of Castilleja Wednesday night in Belmont.
But following the Cupertino tournament this weekend, the Tigers enter the toughest portion of their schedule: West Catholic Athletic League play, which may be even stronger than in years past.
Valley Christian may be the cream of the crop this season, while Mitty, St. Francis, Sacred Heart Cathedral and Presentation are all solid contenders for Central Coast Section title this season.
But neither Notre Dame coach Jennifer Agresti nor her team will be intimidated.
“The kids know about the WCAL. All I’m trying to teach these kids is how to be fighters,” Agresti said. “The WCAL is a fantastic league. The kids need to just step up and play. As long as they give 100 percent (I’ll be satisfied).”
With the talent the Tigers have, all it really needs is some seasoning to be included among the WCAL heavyweights. That talent was certainly on display Wednesday as they had little trouble in dispatching an always tough Castilleja squad, 25-16, 25-22, 25-17.
“I was happy with the way [we] came out and played tonight,” Agresti said.
Notre Dame excelled in all aspects of the game: offense, defense and serving. It was the Tigers’ blocking at the net that set the tone and forced Castilleja (5-6) into a number of hitting errors as it was obvious the Tigers’ ability to block the Gators had them thinking instead of just playing.
“Blocking is really important,” Agresti said. “Our defense sets up around it.”
Add in thunderous kills from a pair of freshmen hitters and it added up to a convincing win for Notre Dame.
The Tigers were paced by freshman Tammy Byrne, who filled up the stat sheet with 12 kills, 10 digs, two blocks and a pair of service aces. Another freshman, Katie Smoot, was right behind with 11 kills, while sophomore Katarina Warburton finished with a team-high 14 digs.
The Tigers committed only a handful of errors in Game 1 as Byrne had six kills and an ace in the opening set. Notre Dame jumped out to a quick 7-2 lead, with Smoot getting a pair of kills in the game-opening run.
Castilleja made a move, winning three straight points to close to 7-5, but the two-point deficit would be as close as the Gators would get. Three straight Castilleja errors followed by a Smoot ace pushed the Tigers lead to 10-5 and another 4-0 run a bit later put Notre Dame up 16-8.
After a Castilleja kill made the score 18-12 in favor of Notre Dame, the Tigers closed the game with a flourish. They scored 7 of the next 11 points, getting five kills during the run as they wrapped up Game 1, 25-16.
Game 2 was the closest and most competitive of the three sets, but Notre Dame was just too tough at the end. After dropping the first two points, it appeared the Tigers were poised to run away with the game as they scored 9 of the next 11 points to open up a 9-5 advantage.
With the Tigers up 14-8, Castilleja put together its most consistent play of the match as the Gators refused to let Notre Dame pull away easily.
Castilleja stayed within shouting distance and eventually closed to 20-19, but the Gators could never quite get over the hump. A Byrne kill pushed the Tigers lead to 21-19 before Smoot heated up and finished off the game by killing three of the Tigers’ final four points for a 25-22 win.
Castilleja, however, did not let its deficit affect its start to Game 3 as the Gators jumped out to a 5-1 lead. But following a Notre Dame timeout, the Tigers regrouped and methodically took back momentum. Byrne, once again, led the way, finishing with six kills in the game.
Castilleja’s last lead came at 8-7. The Tigers then reeled off four straight points to take an 11-8 advantage. The Gators stayed close, but with Notre Dame clinging to a one-point lead, 15-14, the Tigers put the Gators away by winning 10 of the next 13 points and take the match.